The Metric Society: On the Quantification of the Social by Steffen Mau
Algorithms are getting everywhere.
How they work is important to us all, but much of this book is almost unreadable for anyone who is not a social sciences academic.
If you struggle with ‘invisibilised’ and ‘complexifying’ you will have to suppress the gag reflex for the first third of this book. It then becomes easier, helping us appreciate the risks from our shiny new ‘metric society’.
We hear of the expanding use of data rankings across our social, commercial and governmental lives, picked up from a ballooning range of sources, frequently collected for a completely different purpose.
Algorithmic scoring feels objective and precise, but introduces new biases. We are increasingly being watched, although the watchers and the apparatus they use are obscure.
Quantification counts what can be counted, not necessarily what is important, and is open to interpretation.
Mr Mau reminds us: “People don’t do what you expect, but what you inspect.”
In Vietnam, the French colonial government countered a plague of rodents by offering a bounty for their tails, leading to rat farming.
Better personal ratings make you more likely to get the loan you are seeking or find a date for Friday night, leading to competitive efforts to improve one’s score. Are we evolving into a species of status-point hunter-gatherers?
Mr Mau dwells on the pitfalls of the metric society.
There are also benefits, however; for example, less asymmetry between the professional and layman, with medical professionals now subject to review by their patients rather than by established hierarchies.
His book might have done more to weigh benefits against the risks: quantification brings issues, but it may still be better than relying on uninformed personal judgement and the biases of race or parentage.
If you are a student of how data is taking over our lives it is a rich seam, but for the rest of us the services of an editor with a sharp pencil would have been greatly appreciated.
William de Gale is a portfolio manager at BlueBox
Published by Polity Press. Translated into English by Sharon Howe, 2019.